We are living in strange and uncertain times and many people are struggling, like the emails that flood our inboxes constantly inform us. As a direct result of the virus, over a third of the world’s population is currently on lockdown in their homes, throwing social and economic systems across the world into dismay.
In unprecedented times we must look to unprecedented solutions. While artificial intelligence (AI) certainly has a fair amount of precedent it has up to this point been a fringe technology regarded with suspicion by the average user. However, with the dire need for fast and efficient data management, there are a number of areas in which AI is proving itself to be a powerful ally in the fight against coronavirus.
AI systems have already proved themselves to be powerful predictors of outbreaks and health trends. Most notably the AI-powered algorithm Blue Dot sent an alert about an outbreak in Wuhan, China, on December 31st, 2019, over a week before the World Health Organisation and the Center for Disease Control released their announcements. Months after the initial outbreak Blue Dot continues to help healthcare officials keep track of new outbreaks and monitor the spread of coronavirus.
The power to predict outbreaks may seem a little late to those of us already living in locked down cities, but predictive algorithms like Blue Dot could be a vital part of managing the virus over long periods of time. Some are already asking whether, after we manage this outbreak, coronavirus could return with a second wave of infections. Having AI predictors on our sides could help us be more prepared and better mitigate the damage in future outbreaks.
Drug Research and Deployment
Perhaps more pressingly right now, AI can also help with the research, development, and deployment of potentially life-saving drugs. With infections and deaths mounting rapidly time is of the essence and if there’s one thing AI systems excel at is speeding up time-consuming tasks. There is some valuable precedent for AI-designed drugs. Exscientia, a British pharma start-up, used AI to develop a drug for obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) in just 12 months, a process that would have normally taken 4 to 5 years.
It’s still too early to tell how this processing power could be applied to coronavirus drug research, but there are some promising movements. Take Insilico Medicine, who developed an AI system designed to identify the molecular structure of the COVID-19 virus in a matter of days where it could have taken human researchers months.
Reducing Face-To-Face Contact
One of the contentious aspects of the AI is how it could be used to replace human workers, a criticism that has suddenly become an advantage in this age of self-isolation. Any system that reduces human-to-human contact is of value, especially in high-risk environments like hospitals. That’s partly why Chinese eCommerce giant Alibaba funded the development of an AI system for diagnosing coronavirus, which it claims to do in 20 seconds with 96% accuracy.
Another area in which AI is helping distance individuals is in claims processing. Also in China, insurance company Ant Financial uses an AI system to process health insurance claims without the need for the patient to meet a customer representative, further minimising the potential spread of the disease.
Managing The Outbreak
Fighting coronavirus is more than just curing the disease, it’s also about managing the healthy in order to reduce the chance of further outbreaks. This is the step that may last years, so it’s important to look into technology solutions that could help ease the burden of outbreak management.
First came pre-diagnostic systems that told users whether they had the virus or were at risk of contracting it, like the Chinese app that determined exposure and viral contact. However, moving forward it may be the role of machine learning technology to enforce social distancing in workplace and public environments. Landing AI, a tech start-up by Andrew Ng, claims to have a system that does just that, recognising individuals through security cameras and sending an alert whenever anyone gets within the recommended two meters of each other.
Fighting Fake News
While coronavirus is spread through coughs, there is an accompanying psychological virus being spread through fake news. Scammers, fear mongers and the unwillingly misinformed are sharing dangerous misinformation about government conspiracy, symptoms, and potential cures, all of which are distracting from the life-saving information from official sources. Thankfully AI can help here too. Google, Twitter, and Facebook are putting their AI algorithms to task rooting out misinformation and redirecting users to official news sources.